Most Local Churches Today are Dominated by a Plague of Legalism and Taught by Legalists

Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (1Ti 1:6-11)

Most local churches, though they speak much of things like mercy and grace and forgiveness, in actual practice betray the fact that they are legalists. How can we say this? Because all you need to do is watch how they deal with people who are oppressed by the wicked – domestic abusers, sexual abusers, and so on. Let me show you.

Most of you know what happens when the victim of domestic abuse goes to her pastor or church leaders for help. So often her abuser spouse is a member “in good standing” in her church. She is not believed or the wickedness against her is minimized….you know the old sick story. And what is she told? LAW (that really isn’t God’s law at all) –

  • Divorce is forbidden. You shall not divorce
  • You shall forgive your abuser
  • You shall reconcile with your abuser
  • You shall look at your own sin as a cause of this abuse
  • You shall not speak to others about the abuse
  • You shall not call the police
  • You shall…
  • You shall not….
  • And if you do not abide by these laws, you will be cursed

See it? This is law, not gospel. This is treating the victim as if she were an ungodly, lawless, disobedient, unholy, profane person rather than the spiritual new creation in Christ that she actually is. A person with God’s Law written upon her heart, indwelt by the Spirit, guided and directed, taught and led by Christ. Such pastors and church leaders and even individual members who claim to be Christians preaching the gospel are in fact, right out legalists preaching another gospel with the intent of enslaving people.

This, says Paul, is what is at the root of this evil:

desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions

I say again, most churches are actually driven by law, not by Christ and the Spirit. They believe, like the Pharisees, that unless law is brought to bear upon Christians, all hell will break loose. Everyone will run to sin. Open the floodgates and the divorce rate will skyrocket. Their remedy? Law. They treat Christians like unbelieving pagans and they handle unbelieving pagans like Christians! The latter error is carried out when such churches tell the abuser “Yes, you have sinned. But Jesus will forgive you.” Understand – the typical abuser hiding in a church is anything but repentant! No matter. He is promised divine forgiveness anyway.

Martin Luther wrote much about law and grace and how vital it is that we understand their realms and purposes. In particular, he emphasized that every person who believes they are called by God to serve the church as a preacher, must be absolutely certain of that calling. Because if a man is not called to preach or teach God’s people, if his “calling” is one of his own imagination, the inevitable result will be that his preaching will kill and destroy, not give life and build. He will enslave Christians because he does not know the proper use of the Law, and he will enable the wicked because they love to hear how they can in themselves merit God’s acceptance.

I submit to you that a primary, foundational reason local churches are abusing victims of domestic and sexual abusers and enabling the wicked is because they are teachers of law, not of gospel. Furthermore, I maintain that a chief reason for this evil is that many, many pastors and preachers and elders are not called by Christ to those positions.

So what does the gospel look like in such situations? I can tell you. When we are dealing with, for example, a Christian wife who is oppressed and abused by an evil husband, the gospel approaches her as a new creation in Christ. A person indwelt and led by the Holy Spirit. A person who has been taught by Jesus and who possesses therefore the ability to discern righteousness from unrighteousness. We do not thunder laws to her and command her to obey, “or else.” That is Sinai, not the New Jerusalem:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
(Heb 12:18-24)

We do not fear that she will run to evil if we do not bind her with the Law. Why? Because she is a new creation. Because grace in the believer does not promote sin. In fact, it is the LAW that is the power of sin! So we pray with her. We tell her she has the right to separate from and divorce her abuser. We stand with her and tell her that we will support her in her decision. We stand ready to bring the Law of God and the law of the civil authorities to bear upon her abuser when it can be done so without violating her safety. In other words, in accordance with Scripture, we give her the freedom that is hers in Christ to heed His leading in her life. And then we pronounce God’s blessing, not his curse, upon her.

 

 

A Common Door Through Which Evil Enters the Church

This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'(Matthew 15:8-9)

It is, therefore, of the greatest importance for every believer, and particularly for theologians, to know which scriptural truths, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, have been brought to universal recognition in the church of Christ. By this process, after all, the church is kept from immediately mistaking a private opinion for the truth of God. [Herman Bavinck]

Most evangelical Christians assume that they are “Bereans.” Some have even given that name to their church! The Bereans, you know, were said to be of a more noble character than the Thessalonians in that they listened to Paul’s teaching and then searched the Scriptures to see if what he said was true or not. (See Acts 17]

But the fact is that the majority of professing Christians and local churches today do not “search the Scriptures” before they embrace some teaching that has been handed to them since childhood. They don’t search. They assume. And this is how evil enters in among us, bringing us into bondage and leading us away from Christ. Many pastors preach doctrines with a virtual “thus saith the Lord” authority when in reality the Lord hath not “saith” any such thing.

Recently I read a church constitution and bylaws. Included in the list of doctrines which must be believed before someone can be a member were:

  • No consumption of alcohol
  • Divorced persons can never serve in the office of pastor, elder, or deacon
  • Members must cease from all work on the Lord’s Day

And of course we could go on and on and on with a never-ending list of “Bible doctrines” that have in reality been created by men.

Herman Bavinck’s words (quoted above) are wonderful. Scriptural truths which, by the Holy Spirit working in the Christian, have been brought to a universal recognition in the church – these are the common creed. When doctrines which have not been accepted to that degree are pressed upon us, we are in great danger of mistaking man’s private opinion for the truth of God. And that is a disaster. It is an open door for the enemy of our souls to send in His agents.

Did you know that many “Bible-believing” churches today will actually ex-communicate a person if they divorce? It’s true. Over and over again we talk to people who were the long time victims of terrible domestic abuse by a wicked spouse and when they separated from that abuser, they were threatened by their church with ex-communication. Numbers of them ultimately were “handed over to Satan” by their pastors and fellow church members.

Now, think on this very carefully. Is there a universal conclusion throughout the Christian church which recognizes the reasons for which God permits divorce? Let me help you answer the question:

  • John Piper and Jim Ellif and others say God does not permit divorce EVER for any reason.
  • Many teach that adultery and desertion are permissible reasons for divorce, but that remarriage is not permitted
  • Others permit remarriage
  • Many if not most deny that a Christian who is victimized by a domestic abuser can divorce the abuser
  • Myself and a growing number of others insist (and we are right, you know!) that God permits divorce for habitual, unrepentant, ongoing violation of the wedding covenant vows

So, which is it? Does that sound like a doctrine that the Holy Spirit has led the Christian church to universal recognition of? We agree on the deity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, the necessity of the new birth, the second coming of Christ, the final judgment….how can one even be a Christian and not confess these truths?

And yet as we said, many churches will actually ex-communicate a woman who divorces her long-time abuser husband if she even separates from him and refuses to return, just as readily as if she stood up in the congregation and announced that she rejects Jesus Christ as the Son of God!

And so, evil comes into the church. Evil-doers creep in among us. They are even enabled and encouraged in their wickedness. All because doctrines of men are elevated to the authority of God’s own Word. Many if not most churches have a lesser or greater degree of legalism’s yoke pressing down upon the flock. Others go the libertine route and announce perversions of God’s Word to be Scripture, rejecting the Lord’s plain truth given to us. The enemy delights in either route.

We cannot love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and soul if we wrap our arms around falsehood anymore than the Pharisees loved Him. In fact, when the true and living Christ shows up among such a people, He is hated and rejected because He is not the idol god they have created.